The goals of President Obama's Nuclear Security Summit are so modest and uncontroversial that the event can't be anything but a success. But the real action is taking place on the sidelines of the Washington sit-down, where the President is lobbying world leaders one by one to back new sanctions against Iran. And on that front, his prospects remain decidedly mixed.
"They are prepared to work with us," White House China hand Jeffrey Bader announced after Obama discussed the sanctions issue with President Hu Jintao. But the Chinese quickly poured cold water on any suggestion that they had embraced Washington's view that tough sanctions offer a path to resolving the standoff over Iran's nuclear program. "China always believes that dialogue and negotiation are the best way out for the issue," Foreign Ministry official Jiang Yu said after the meeting. "Pressure and sanctions cannot fundamentally solve it."
It has become a familiar pattern to hear Administration officials claim Russian and Chinese support for sanctions, only for the extent of that support to quickly pale in the cold light of day. The Chinese do not appear to have reversed their opposition to sanctions; they've simply agreed to discuss a sanctions resolution presented by the U.S. something they had refused to do until now. The chances of such discussion resulting in a meaningful escalation of U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran remain slim. The U.S. is proposing measures to choke off investment in Iran's energy sector, block Iran's access to international credit and punish companies associated with Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps. But China is the largest foreign investor in Iran's energy sector, and it has made clear that it opposes measures aimed at stopping such investment. While Obama reportedly indicated that the U.S. would help China make up any shortfall in oil imports resulting from Iranian retaliation for any Chinese support for sanctions, that's unlikely to change Beijing's position its investments are designed to secure its long-term strategic stake in Iran's energy sector, which goes far deeper than simply buying Iran's oil exports.
China, like Russia, has also made clear that it will oppose any measures that inflict economic pain on Iranian society, meaning that the best consensus that Washington manages to forge will likely be Beijing's agreement not to veto another milquetoast package of sanctions measures that are unlikely to change Tehran's calculations. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, also in Washington for the summit, announced that his country also on the Security Council opposes new sanctions against Iran but is willing to mediate between Tehran and the West. Also on the sidelines of the summit, Brazil another Security Council member also opposed further sanctions and called for dialogue.
One of the toughest Iran-sanctions fights facing the Administration in the weeks ahead may be on Capitol Hill, where a tough sanctions bill that would punish third-country companies for doing business with Iran's energy sector has been passed by both chambers, with the Senate and House versions currently being reconciled. But such measures would invariably antagonize China and other players, potentially dooming the wider sanctions effort. The White House is reportedly seeking to allow exceptions in the law for "closely cooperating countries," but congressional Iran hawks aware of just how limited any U.N. sanctions are likely to be are hanging tough.
Administration officials frame this week's Washington talks as part of a carefully choreographed sequence of events, including the new START agreement signed with Russia last week and Obama's new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), to be followed next month by the five-yearly review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in New York City. That event, however, promises some real fireworks. Whereas the President's summit is attended by some 50 countries, the NPT one will be attended by 200 including Iran, as a signatory to the treaty.
Tehran has previously garnered some support from developing countries for its claim that the West is trying to deny Iran's NPT right to maintain a full-fuel-cycle nuclear program which includes the right to enrich uranium. This weekend, it plans to host its own minisummit on the NPT under the slogan "Nuclear Energy for All, Nuclear Weapons for None," and claims that both Russia and China will attend. The theme is a smart move to turn attention back to the disarmament component of the NPT, whose underlying principle is that states without nuclear weapons will refrain from pursuing them, while those who have them will move toward disarmament.
It's a safe bet that Iran will insist on discussing Israel's nuclear arsenal at the NPT event the Jewish state has declined, like India and Pakistan, to sign the treaty, and is believed to have about 200 nuclear warheads and on that issue it will get support from even many of the moderate Arab states that share Washington's concerns over Iran. Statements in recent days from Iranian officials also suggest that it will draw attention to Obama's NPR, which among other things reserves the right for the U.S. to launch nuclear strikes against states deemed by the U.S. to be noncompliant with the NPT, making explicit that Obama was referring to Iran. The prerogative to use the threat of nuclear attack to enforce the NPT is not one recognized by the treaty or most of its signatory states, and Tehran will hope to turn the tables on Washington.
Iran doesn't necessarily need to win others over to its camp; simply keeping them out of the Western camp would count as a victory. And the positions of Turkey, Brazil and even China on the preferability of dialogue over sanctions may be a sign that the U.S. and its allies could struggle to isolate Iran.